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Remarks to the 2000 Governors Highway Safety Summit, Lexington, KY
Jim Hall
Governors Highway Safety Summit, Lexington, KY

Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be with you here in Lexington on this post-election day. I want to thank Secretary Codell and Commissioner Logsdon for inviting me to be here today to talk about highway safety issues of importance to us all. Let me especially recognize Governor Patton for his leadership in holding this conference and demonstrating his commitment to reducing the terrible toll on Kentucky's highways.

As many of you may know, the National Transportation Safety Board has been the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites for over three decades.

Congress believed, when it established the Board, that an independent investigative agency was needed to investigate accidents in all modes of transportation, and to make recommendations that would improve the safety of the transportation system and prevent similar accidents from recurring.

Most associate the Safety Board - and me - with aviation safety - primarily because major aviation accidents receive a lot of attention - from the public and the media. As a result of that attention, and the public's demand for the government and the industry to take the aggressive action necessary to ensure their safety - aviation accidents are rare events and we have the safest air transport system in the world.

The same is not true on our highways - the one transport system that all of us use every day. Highway crashes account for more than 40,000 deaths and 3½ million injuries annually in the United States.

They are the leading cause of death for young Americans between the ages of 6 and 27. Here in Kentucky, more than 800 people die on your roadways every year. Your conference brochure points out that those highway crashes cost the State $3.3 billion.

It's time that we change the safety culture on our highways so that it rivals the safety culture we've established for our skies.

  Despite this continuing carnage on our highways - we - the American people -- aren't yet demanding the same kind of proactive action by our local, state, and federal governments and the industry to make traveling on our highways as safe as traveling in our skies.

As a result, government officials and industry leaders aren't willing to make the hard decisions necessary to improve the safety of our highways.

That's what I want to talk to you about today - what you can do to help change the safety culture on our roads and, by doing so, improve the safety of your children, yourselves, and your fellow citizens. Over the years, I have focused the Board's assets on improving child passenger safety, promoting occupant protection, and enhancing teen driving laws, including adoption of graduated driver licensing and age 21 and zero alcohol tolerance laws. Much has been accomplished, but much more needs to be done if we are to truly alter our nation's highway safety culture.

We need to enact State laws and programs that will improve the safety of our children

The thing American families fear most is the loss of one of their children - and rightfully so. As a parent myself, I cannot imagine such an experience, yet every year thousands of parents have to endure this unspeakable loss, because of preventable highway crashes.

  • More than 90,000 children, infants to teenagers, were killed in the 1990s in motor vehicle crashes and over 9 million children were injured;
  • Over 17,000 children under age 10 died in motor vehicle crashes, that's 32 children each week;
  • Over 63,000 children between ages 15-20 died in traffic crashes; more than 120 each week;
  • Six out of ten children who died were not buckled up; and
  • The vast majority of children under age 8 who are buckled up, are not properly restrained. In Kentucky, in 1999, 185 children died in motor vehicle crashes. That is one child under the age of 21 dying every other day on this State's roadways. Tragically, 68 percent of those children were not buckled up. That is just not acceptable.

We know that seatbelts, like air bags, are designed for adults. Did you know that a child has to be almost five feet tall before the vehicle shoulder belt will fit properly? Safety advocates recommend that children should be in child restraints up to the age of 4; in booster seats to the age of 8; and in the back seat. However, neither Kentucky, nor any of the other states has a child restraint law with all of these requirements in it. Kentucky law requires all children under 40 inches tall to be in a child safety seat. But, there are no provisions for older children, such as requiring booster seats for children between 4 and 8 years old, or requiring them to ride in the back.

We should strive to have the highest level of safety for our children. Every citizen and legislator in Kentucky and all of the States should have zero tolerance for unbuckled children, and it is the states' and industry's responsibility to assist parents in assuring that they can use child safety restraints correctly. Every citizen should demand that they fulfill that responsibility.

For as long as there have been child safety seats, parents and caregivers have had to ask two questions each time they buckle their child into the car: did I buckle the child restraint into the car properly and is my child properly buckled into the restraint system?

They would be able to answer those questions if there was a fitting station available to them. These stations allow parents, at their convenience, to have a safety seat properly installed and to find out if they are using the right restraint for their child's size.

In Australia, which has had fitting stations for more than 15 years, misuse rates are as low as 16 percent in surveys where parents report that they have been to a fitting station. Year after year, observational surveys and safety seat clinics have shown that 80 percent or more of child safety seats are not properly installed in the car or the child is not properly secured in the seat.

Almost two years ago, the Safety Board recommended that Federal and State governments and the automobile and child restraint manufacturers establish permanent fitting stations to help address the continuing extensive problems of child safety seat misuse that we have endured in this country for too many years.

I am pleased that Kentucky is coordinating the creation of permanent fitting stations at Department of Transportation local district offices throughout the State and has set a goal to have a minimum of 13 permanent stations by the end of 2000.

I hope that you have already reached that goal. In addition, the Police Department in Paducah, Kentucky, operates a fitting station at its headquarters and I congratulate them on taking this initiative to protect Paducah's children.

DaimlerChrysler answered our call for fitting stations with a nationwide program of permanent fitting stations at their dealerships that has set the standard for the rest of the industry. Currently, there are fitting stations in DaimlerChrysler dealerships in Covington, Elizabethtown, Florence, Hopkinsville, Louisville, and here in Lexington.

General Motors responded to our recommendation by establishing mobile fitting stations in every state in partnership with the National Safe Kids Campaign. There is one such brightly decorated minivan currently on display here. But, when it is not on exhibition, it is used to bring child safety seat inspections to different communities in Kentucky.

Last week, I recognized GM and Safe Kids for inspecting over 100,000 child safety seats. Would the Safe Kids coalition members in the audience and all of the certified child safety seat technicians stand up so that we can recognize you? Thank you for your efforts to save children's lives.

I also want to recognize the Boost America program, sponsored by Ford Motor Company, that will provide support for existing community fitting stations and will implement a campaign to give away booster seats. Ford will also help train additional technicians and promote existing local programs.

According to Safety Board estimates, about 10 million children are being transported in misused safety seats and need the services of fitting stations. We need everyone's help and everyone working together to close the gap between parents' perception that they are doing it right and our knowledge that 80 percent of them are doing it wrong.

Kentucky should strengthen its safety belt use law

We all know that increasing the safety belt use rate is the most inexpensive and effective way to cut the highway death toll and prevent injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that more than 14,000 lives could be saved every year if all front seat occupants used safety belts.

Yet, many people don't wear them. According to the Highway Safety Branch of the Kentucky State Police, the use rate in Kentucky is only 60 percent. While that is an improvement over previous years, it still falls well below the national use rate of 71 percent. In 1999, two-thirds of the motor vehicle occupants who died in crashes on Kentucky highways were not wearing seat belts. Surveys also show that when adults are buckled up, 80 percent of the children riding with them also buckle up. But, only about 20 percent of those children riding with unbelted adults buckle up.

In 1995, the Safety Board recommended that States enact a primary enforcement provision for existing laws that require front seat occupants to wear safety belts. These laws would permit law enforcement officers to stop and cite a violator for a seatbelt infraction alone without evidence of another traffic violation and would dramatically increase safety belt and child safety seat use and saves lives. Enacting such a law is one of the most important steps that Kentucky can take to save lives on its roadways.

Seat belt use rates in States with primary enforcement law are about 17 percentage points higher than in States with secondary enforcement laws. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that a 15 percent increase in Kentucky's belt use rate would prevent 73 fatalities, and more than 1,400 injuries every year. It would also save $91.7 million annually in medical and other related costs.

The current fine for not wearing a safety belt in Kentucky is $25. In many places, parking tickets are more expensive. A North Carolina survey of "hard core" non-users found that fines alone, especially small fines, are not effective deterrents. Assessing points against the driver's license, and levying fines of $50 or more are much more effective. I urge you to consider similar measures in any legislation to strengthen Kentucky's seat belt use law.

Kentucky should adopt a comprehensive graduated licensing bill

Despite efforts by many states, including Kentucky, to enact graduated licensing laws, we still have a serious, but preventable, young driver crash problem. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 20 years of age, causing roughly one-third of all fatalities. Even though drivers in this age group make up only seven percent of the driving population, they are involved in 14 percent of all traffic fatalities. In 1998, 184 people in Kentucky died in traffic crashes involving 15 to 20 year old drivers.

Without comprehensive graduated driver licensing laws, the projected increase in the number of young drivers will lead to more deaths on our highways.

I am proud to say that my home State of Tennessee enacted a graduated licensing law this year that can serve as a model for Kentucky and other states. The law requires a mandatory six-month holding period for a learner's permit and a mandatory one year holding period for an intermediate license. While driving with each of these permits, young drivers also have a nighttime driving restriction and are limited on the number of teens that can be in their car without an adult present. To move to the next level or to get a full license, young drivers must have a clean driving record. Thus, good driving habits are rewarded and reinforced.

Some detractors say that it's too difficult to enforce nighttime restrictions and passenger limits because it is often difficult to know the driver's age.

Well, their age isn't what's critical to know. It's their level of experience and the type of license they hold - it's whether a learner's, provisional, or full license. We would do well to follow Australia's lead by requiring young drivers to use front and rear 'L' or 'P' removable window decals when they drive. Authorities would then know the driver's license status and other drivers would know to be more aware of possible unexpected driving actions by young, inexperienced drivers.

State action against drunk driving must be stepped up

I'm sure many of you are aware that 12 years ago, the worst alcohol-related highway collision in American history occurred here in Kentucky - when a pick-up truck collided with a church activity bus in Carrollton. The pick-up driver had been drinking and was going the wrong way on I-71. Ninety minutes after the crash, his blood alcohol content was 0.26 percent.

He survived the crash, but the passengers on the bus were not as fortunate - 27 innocent people died, and 34 more suffered injuries when the bus burst into flames.

That crash alerted the nation to the perils of driving while intoxicated. Since then, all States, including Kentucky, have enacted significant legislation to address the problem. With the passage of H.B. 366 earlier this year, your General Assembly has enacted three important drunk driving countermeasures - reducing the allowable blood alcohol limit to 0.08 percent, prohibiting open alcohol containers in vehicles, and addressing the issue of repeat offenders. But, the legislature has repeatedly failed to enact one of the most effective measures for dealing with drunk drivers - administrative license revocation.

Any driver who drinks and drives puts you, your family, your friends, and your neighbors at risk. It's time we got serious about DWI offenders and those who drive on suspended licenses.

Those who flaunt our laws and imperil innocent citizens should be separated from their vehicles. This provision would allow law enforcement officers to confiscate the license of any driver who either fails or refuses to take a chemical breath test. To be truly effective, the officer must be able to confiscate the license on the spot. Kentucky is one of only 10 States that have not adopted administrative license revocation.

We assume that every State values the safety of its children. Yet, when we look at State laws, it is clear that many states fail to provide the full measure of protection within their capability. All of you, your children, and your fellow citizens deserve to be protected by the latest technology, by the benefits provided by graduated licensing and from the dangers presented by persistent drunk drivers.

Kentucky legislators, politicians, and law enforcement officials need to work together on all of these initiatives - only then will we have a safety culture on our roads that equals that of our aviation system. It's time to take motor vehicle crashes off the list as the leading cause of children's deaths in the U.S. It's time to put children first. And, it's time that we have one level of safety that ensures that the laws in every state are equally comprehensive for children of all ages.

Thank you again, for inviting me to join you. I hope each of you will join me in making highway safety your number one priority and in urging your local, state, and federal officials to take action on all of these important highway safety initiatives.